Colorado Startups Push to Get Unmanned Aircraft Industry Airborne

10/31/13Follow @MichaelXBD

The sky might be the limit for the unmanned aircraft industry, but before it takes flight, the engineers, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts trying to build an industry that they say could soon have a $13.6 billion economic impact will have to navigate a tricky route through the offices of regulators and lawmakers—and the court of public opinion.

This is a fact of life for people like Allen Bishop, president and CEO of Reference Technologies. The three-year-old startup is designing and building unmanned aerial systems at its headquarters in Lafayette, CO, a town about 15 minutes east of Boulder.

ReferenceTek is building an autonomous system Bishop believes could revolutionize the way public safety officials respond to emergencies and how physicians deliver medicine in the developing world.

Bishop was showing off his aircraft Tuesday at a demonstration hosted by FreeWave Technologies, a Boulder-based company that makes radios. FreeWave wants to capitalize on what could be a growing industry, and for the prior two days had hosted a gathering of entrepreneurs and researchers to talk shop and show off its creations.

[A note on nomenclature: while the public and media call the vehicles drones, people in the industry shy away from the term. They prefer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the aircraft itself and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for the UAVs, ground stations, and communications systems that control them. They also distinguish between military drones equipped with missiles and used in combat with civilian systems.]

The guests and FreeWave’s employees ended the day in the company’s hangar-like break area for flight demonstrations. Bishop, though, began his day in Denver, meeting state legislators to discuss potential new bills UAS advocates believe could make or break the industry in the state.

Hexa-Copter

Drones are a controversial topic everywhere, but Colorado might be an extreme case. There are advocates like Bishop who talk about the potential to save lives, and entrepreneurs who have created small startups that build unmanned aerial vehicles, the software and hardware that runs them, and the components that can relay information to pilots. Colorado also has a robust aerospace industry: companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin have facilities in the state. The Air Force also has several bases around Colorado Springs.

“There’s a local cottage industry coming out of this that could well be huge,” Bishop said, likening it to the explosive growth of the PC industry in the 1980s.

A report released this year by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a pro-industry advocacy group supported by the aerospace sector, has put forward some eye-catching figures. It estimates that once the FAA opens the skies to commercial UAVs, the industry would have a $13.6 billion economic impact within three years; by 2025, the impact could reach $82.1 billion. It also says the economic impact in Colorado will be $232 million by 2017.

But drone skeptics are unconvinced, and Colorado has plenty of people who are concerned about potential privacy violations or misuse by police. The most strident and extreme activists have persuaded the small rural Colorado town of Deer Trail to consider issuing “drone hunting licenses” that would allow them to shoot down the vehicles.

Bishop is active in industry groups trying to bring a Federal Aviation Authority testing center to Colorado, which they believe could create jobs. The groups also lobby for UAS industry-friendly laws and regulations. Bishop said he wants ReferenceTek to stay in Colorado and grow into an industry leader, but legal issues are a concern, and that means persuading politicians and citizens to see the benefits of unmanned aerial systems.

“What we’re trying to do is educate the public that these are not something to be feared, these are useful tools,” Bishop said. “They will find your missing child, or the bad guy hiding in the woods.”

It was unlikely that many drone skeptics were in the crowd at FreeWave’s event, but people were aware of the issues. Steve Cass, the FreeWave employee who organized the event and specializes in “airspace management,” said the FAA, lawmakers in Congress and each state, and others face a real challenge in determining how to integrate unmanned aircraft into the airspace. Air traffic controllers and pilots will have to cope, so it’s worth getting the regulations right. Congress has told the FAA to figure it all out by September 2015.

“The process, as cumbersome as it might be, is probably for the best,” Cass said.

On the other hand, Cass thinks privacy concerns are overblown and vehemently believes there’s only so much good regulations can do. The problem isn’t technology, but people.

“You can regulate all you want, but idiots will always do stupid things,” Cass said.

The controversy isn’t likely to go away, but on Tuesday afternoon it was definitely in the background, as technology took center stage.

A handful of companies showed off elegant fixed-wing UAVs, while teams from the University of Nebraska’s campuses in Lincoln and Omaha brought less-refined systems that could take off vertically. There was supposed to be a race, but bad weather kept everyone inside.

Reference Technologies had two vertical-takeoff aircraft on display. One was its battery-powered hexacopter, a craft with six rotors that looks like the brawnier, bigger, more advanced cousin of systems that already are available commercially. The hexacopter can stay airborne for about 45 minutes and is smart enough to navigate autonomously over a course set by waypoints and even find its way home if it needs to. It is currently in production, and one that’s been maxed out with cameras and sensors would cost about $3,000, according to Bishop.

But ReferenceTek is betting on the Hummingbird line, which Bishop believes is a major step forward for unmanned aerial systems.

Hummingbird IIThe Hummingbird, with a barrel-like carbon-fiber body supported by carbon-fiber legs, certainly didn’t look like any other UAS on display. Plastic boxes that can hold electronic components, sensors, or cargo ring the outside of the body, and six arms that protrude from the vehicle’s chassis each hold a rotor.

Bishop said the key difference between the Hummingbird and other unmanned craft is the large gas-powered directed fan that is inside the body and gives the Hummingbird enough thrust to set new performance standards. The prototype hasn’t been flight tested yet, but ReferenceTek estimates the top-of-the-line Hummingbird will have a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour, the ability to carry 20 pounds, a range of up to 250 miles, and an operational ceiling of up to 5,000 feet. It also would be capable of autonomous flight and be able to communicate its position to other aircraft. Potentially, Hummingbirds would be smart enough to change course without human intervention.

As recently as five years ago, technology this advanced only existed in the dreams of futurists or in dystopian science fiction.

“These will be in a certain sense self-aware,” Bishop said.

Bishop is waiting on FAA clearance to conduct flight tests. Another option is to test the Hummingbird at a military base near Colorado Springs. Either way, it should be aloft soon.

“We’re going to be flying this within the next several weeks,” he said.

Bishop believes the vehicle will prove a game changer when commercial production begins early next year. The Hummingbird will have the range and payload capacity needed to ferry medical supplies to remote outposts in developing countries, or the ability to air drop survival kits to injured mountain climbers trapped in inhospitable terrain, and during conditions that would ground rescue helicopters.

According to Bishop, ReferenceTek has received inquiries about the Hummingbird from potential clients in Germany and Israel, and the U.S. military, U.S. Geological Survey, and several United Nations aid agencies have shown interest. Base models will probably cost around $125,000.

ReferenceTek is Bishop’s third startup. His biggest prior success was a company that built laptop computer systems and video recorders for police cars. Bishop and a small number of investors have put about $3.25 million into ReferenceTek, with most of the money coming from him, Bishop said.

The founders of Black Swift Technologies are at the other end of the experience spectrum. Jack Elston, the president and CEO, is a recent Ph.D. recipient from the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he studied at the college’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles. Black Swift is housed in an industrial space in Boulder, but it wasn’t too long ago that Elston was working out of his home.

Black Swift designs and manufactures autopilot systems for aircraft and ground stations for their operators. It also makes an app for Android tablets that enables users to create flight plans with mapping software like Google Maps.

Elston’s and Black Swift’s app could make piloting unmanned aircraft systems simple, but for the next few years, it’s hard to envision that much else drone-related will be easy.

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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